The ‘burbs’ are a common, if overused, site for film to deconstruct the ever-mythical American Dream and expose the moral corruption lying behind the white picket fence. American Beauty, The Virgin Suicides, and The Stepford Wives, to name a few, are some well-known endeavors that unmask these idyllic sceneries, each with an appropriate degree of sensationalism, justified only by their careful execution. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Suburbicon, George Clooney’s latest effort as a director.
This film begins with a commercial for the town of Suburbicon, a picture-perfect backdrop that the experienced moviegoer knows is about to fall apart just from watching the aforementioned titles and their derivatives. Thus, we know what to expect when we meet the Lodges, the seemingly quintessential 1960s nuclear family that turns out to be not-so-quintessential after they suffer a traumatizing episode. And so, just as we might predict, all that is evil in the everyman is unleashed. In this respect, Suburbicon doesn’t really offer anything new to this theme.
However, Suburbicon certainly attempts, albeit unsuccessfully, to provide commentary on racial politics through the Mayers, a black family that causes much upheaval after they move into the town of Suburbicon. Unfortunately, the film’s treatment of the Mayers’ story is so shallow that one is left to wonder about their purpose: whether they stand as counterpoints for the protagonists, and the rest of Suburbicon, to unveil yet another barbaric facet of a community that repeatedly commits violent acts of hate on their lawn; or even to try to offer a glimmer of integrity amidst the insanity. As a result, the family is almost a background story, usually hovering behind the main event involving the Lodges, only emerging enough not to be forgotten. Although we often see them in their daily struggles with racism, we do not know much about them as people. Because they are so deliberately placed in the movie, and since the overarching narrative could have easily done without them, the Mayers might be the most puzzling aspect of the film. Yet, their earnestness and resilience does not fit within the film’s absurdist dark comedy, perhaps because their narrative rings a bit too true even today. In spite of its relevance in the Trump era, the brevity of the family’s appearances and the hints of white guilt that underlie this storyline make for a lukewarm, indecisive message.
It’s been said that the Suburbicon script has been lying around the Coen brothers’ drawers since the mid-80s, until director George Clooney came along and revamped it in recent years, which might account for the choppy storyline.
A few scenes, however, do have the vitality and ingenuity we might recognize as the Coens’ auteurist sensibility. For instance, the wit and sharpness of Oscar Isaac’s performance as an insurance agent revives Suburbicon after a mid-film slump. The film’s performances are indeed quite good at some points, but not enough to sustain the flimsy plot. What carries the movie forward is Nicky (Noah Jubes), the youngest Lodge, who tries to make sense of his unstable surroundings through his frightened gaze. Overall, these few good moments might be memorable, but they are not enough to salvage the movie as a whole.